Sunday, March 29, 2009

Hurdles to Regional Cooperation in South Asia

Paper presented at 25th Year’s Celebrations of Action Aid, Bangladesh on March 29th 2009

In the age of globalization, countries are coming ever so closer as borders fall to bring them into economic integration. Although globalization as a concept has come into common usage not very long ago, the trend towards this regional integration of nations started long before globalization came into common usage. The trend towards regional integration started soon after the second Great War in Europe. Globalization has both its supporters as well as opponents; but there are few who would argue about regional cooperation.

There are many examples of successful regional organizations formed for economic benefit to compete better in a globalized world. European Union is the best example. ASEAN is another. Then there are others such as NAFTA. Some of these organizations are moving towards political integration and bringing in other issues such as security to strengthen their regional organizations. In fact, no matter which regional organization one takes as an example, the result is the same; they have all moved through stages of integration that have benefitted both the organizations themselves and the member nations in a manner that can be best described as win-win for all.

These successful regional organizations no doubt had led late President Ziaur Rahman to propose towards the end of the 1970s a South Asian trading bloc that sowed the seeds of a regional organization for South Asia that ultimately matured when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was formed in Dhaka in 1985. SAARC brought 7 South Asian countries together that had the following strong points for regional integration:

1. More than 1.4 billion that is roughly 1/5th of humanity; majority of whom live below the poverty line;
2. Countries sharing common history, culture and civilization spread over few thousand years
3. Region where poverty is significant and where regional cooperation can be a major key to development.

Despite great potentials, SAARC has not evolved in the same way as has EU or ASEAN. In fact, the founding fathers of SAARC themselves were aware of the problems that they thought would stand in way of the organization evolving to its fullest potentials. In the charter therefore they clearly incorporated the fact that contentious bilateral issues would not be discussed in the framework of SAARC while adopting the following objectives in its Charter:
· to promote the welfare of the peoples of South Asia and to improve their quality of life;
· to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realize their full potential;
· to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia;
· to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another's problems;
· to promote active collaboration and mutual assistance in the economic, social, cultural, technical and scientific fields;
· to strengthen cooperation with other developing countries;
· to strengthen cooperation among themselves in international forums on matters of common interest; and
· to cooperate with international and regional organizations with similar aims and purposes.
Anyone reading through the list cannot help sensing that existing bilateral problems among the member countries must have been upper most in the minds of the Founding fathers of the SAARC Charter about what the association could achieve. They were negative about its prospects , feeling that if bilateral issues were allowed to be discussed within SAARC, it would stand in the way of achieving the prospects and promises it had on issues of common nature to all the member countries. The objectives have thus been set out in a manner that is vague and does not render the organization with that positive environment within which to lead it to match the effectiveness or the successes of other regional organizations. As a consequence, some critical issues for removal of poverty as for example water cannot be discussed within SAARC as Bangladesh and India have problems related to it.
SAARC has therefore restricted itself with the Charter that it has adopted from emerging as a successful regional organization because member countries have among them serious bilateral problems. In fact, political rivalries among the member nations have stood in the way of SAARC growing meaningfully. The major political issues in this context are:
1. Kashmir issue between Pakistan and India
2. The Sri Lankan Civil War; and
3. Bangladesh-India problems over the waters of the common rivers.
4. Alleged “illegal migration” from Bangladesh to India; and
5. Cross border terrorism.
6. The unequal size of the member countries with Maldives and Bhutan often expressing concern over this issue.
As a consequence of these rivalries, the “core” issues could never be addressed meaningfully and have thus not succeeded in integrating the member countries in any concrete manner. In fact, over the years SAARC has been in existence, the region has seen India-Pakistan coming close to a nuclear war ; SAARC Summit postponed on political differences; and a fence built by India on its border with Bangladesh and Pakistan.
SAARC was visualized by its dreamer President Ziaur Rahman as a trade bloc. Trade came into contention quite sometime after SAARC was launched with an Integrated Program of Action (IPA) in nine areas, namely, Agriculture, Rural Development; Telecommunications, Meteorology; Health and Population Activities; Transport; Postal Services; Sports; and Arts and Culture. On trade issues, SAARC has limped badly. Member countries have expressed their unwillingness to sign a free trade agreement. India has free trade agreements with Sri Lanka, Maldives, Bhutan and Nepal. Such agreements by India with Pakistan and Bangladesh have been stalled on political and economic concerns. India has raised fencing across its borders with Bangladesh and Pakistan, apparently to counter smuggling and cross border terrorism that has further pushed back efforts towards free trade. SAPTA that was reached in the Male Summit in 1990 led Bangladesh to lower tariff against Indian imports on a wide range of items. India failed to reciprocate the Bangladeshi gesture. In the Islamabad Summit in 2004, the member states finally signed SAFTA, addressing their desire to make the region a free trade zone. The agreement came into force in 2006. Under the agreement, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Maldives will make their countries free trade areas for the SAARC member countries. Bangladesh, Nepal and Bhutan as LDCs will have 4 more years to do the same.
SAARC Secretary General in his recent visit to Bangladesh has been candid about the organization. He stressed upon the need to strengthen bilateral cooperation between the member states in order to lead to more intense regional cooperation. In other words, he has correctly assessed the conflicts among the member states in their bilateral cooperation as the main reason for SAARC not yet emerging as a successful regional organization. This conflict in bilateral relations as a major impediment to successful regional cooperation involves India at the core.
In a paper by Professor Ben Crow of University of California, Santa Cruz, written almost a decade ago on impediments to regional cooperation in South Asia, the author had identified India’s insistence on bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations for resolving bilateral conflicts as one of the most important reason for sustaining conflicts in the region. One is well aware that when SAARC was in the contemplating stages, India was the country that was reluctant about such an organization fearing that a regional organization would allow countries with which India has bilateral problems (that includes the rest of the member states) to group together against her. In fact, it is this Indian perception that has led to the negative induction of the clause that contentious bilateral issues will not figure in SAARC framework.
Ben Crowe, while seeking at alternate ways to reinvigorate SAARC, has mentioned water as an issue with which to overcome problems in India’s bilateral relations with her neighbours. While India has resolved its water sharing issues with Pakistan successfully, in its eastern and northern frontiers, it has left the water sharing problems, particularly with Bangladesh, un resolved with disastrous consequences for the latter. Fifty-four of Bangladesh’s 56 rivers that sustains life and livelihood inn Bangladesh run from India where the Ganges is the most important one. Bangladesh and India signed an agreement on sharing water of the Ganges in 1996 for sharing water of this mighty river available during the dry season at Farakka where India has unilaterally built the barrage but since the signing of the agreement, water flow at Farakka has become low for sharing due to withdrawal of waters at upstream in other Indian provinces. The 1996 agreement however assures Bangladesh 90% of the agreed quantum in the dry season and does not take into account the issues of availability. India therefore now faces treaty obligation to Bangladesh to give her the agreed share of water during the dry season from the Ganges.
A change in the Indian mindset from bilateralism towards multilateralism will not just augment water available at Ganges during the dry season; there are a host of other benefits here that could eventually help regional cooperation by overcoming persistent bilateral problems. This sub-region is, according to independent studies, one of the richest areas of the world in terms of availability of water. During the monsoon, in the absence of a sub-regional cooperation between Bangladesh, India and Nepal on water management, the waters flood this region causing havoc and devastation and most of the water is rained into the Bay of Bengal. It is retaining this water and managing it to augment dry season flow that holds the key to harnessing this natural resource for welfare of the people living in the Ganges basin which added to the people who live in the other great river basin of the world, namely the Brahmaputra Basin, is home to more poor people that the whole of Sub-Sahara taken together.
A multilateral negotiation with the countries of the sub-region on sharing waters of the mighty Ganges by building dams in Nepal would not just help manage water effectively, control floods, augment dry season flows, these dams will also allow generation of electricity that could be shared in a region where lack of electricity is a major hurdle to economic development. Water can thus be used in this region not just to bring about economic miracle; such cooperation on water would also help improve bilateral conflicts and ease way for strengthening SAARC. India’s recent move to build a barrage at Tippaihmukh on Bangladesh’s northeastern border is going to deprive the latter of waters of Surma and Kushiara and will only add to complicating bilateral relations, obstructing regional cooperation. Here India’s responsibility is of the essence but thus far she has made precious little moves that could help bilateral relations improve for creating the conditions necessary for regional cooperation.
Thus the key to strengthening SAARC lies in improving bilateral relations. In such efforts, where need be, the member countries should seek a multilateral approach to cooperation that in turn will create the confidence towards greater integration. The need of the moment is to tackle the air of distrust which has been entrenched further by the emergence of cross border terrorism that involves India and Pakistan. India is also concerned about Bangladesh that she considers as a “soft underbelly” for cross border terrorism. In this context, the proposal that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina made upon assuming power for a South Asian Task Force has not met with the degree of approval from India that Bangladesh anticipated. When the idea was floated first, Indian Home Minister P. Chidambaram was very enthusiastic; so was opposition leader LK Advani. Then when the Indian FM came to Dhaka, the Indian interest had turned lukewarm; perhaps because they were hoping that the proposal would be bilateral rather than multilateral. India took shelter under a SAARC agreement on this subject that has hardly been activated since being incorporated in the framework of SAARC years ago.
The fruits of regional cooperation are immense but politics is the bane of success of a regional organization for South Asia. While building blocks for strengthening regional cooperation through improvement of bilateral relations among member countries of SAARC is feasible on northeast among India, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal, given political will of the countries concerned; it is Pakistan-India relations, both nuclear powers and a history of bad relations that saw them fight two conventional wars and come close to a nuclear one that stands between South Asia and successful regional cooperation. Bad relations are also causing both the countries to spend billions of dollars in defense expenditures that could so well go for welfare of their peoples. India’s recent strides in global politics and economics have added to the air of dominance that she always had which is not good for regional cooperation. India’s recent successes globally should encourage her to use her newly found strength for strengthening regional cooperation and one hopes that after the elections to be held there shortly, the new Indian leadership would move that way. This notwithstanding, Pakistan’s current political situation is a new dark cloud over the future of SAARC. Unless Pakistan stabilizes politically and India sees the wisdom to cooperate regionally by improving her bilateral relations with her neighbours, SAARC will limp its way to the future cooperating on the Integrated Programme of Action (IPA) in areas that will hardly help the region achieve dramatic results through regional cooperation. As a regional organization, SAARC will fall far short of realizing even a part of its true potentials till these political relations are streamlined in a win-win situation of all the member states of the association. The region seems quite a distance away from such a possibility.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

BDR carnage and International Crimes Tribunal Act, 1973

Published in The Daily Star's Independence Day Special, March 26, 2009

MODERN history's worst massacre of armed forces officers during peacetime is yet far from a resolution for which the nation together with the families of the victims is eagerly awaiting. Although little has been revealed, there is a nagging apprehension in the minds of many that this has been the result of a conspiracy that was aimed at rocking the very foundations of Bangladesh. It is everybody's hope and prayer that such a conspiracy, if it existed in reality, will be revealed and those responsible for it dealt with under the law.

What is known though is that the brutality of the massacre is too gory for print. The bodies of the officers were mutilated and dumped into holes. Clearly, the killers committed crimes against humanity for which they must face the harshest penalty under the law. Unfortunately, there seems to be confusion among those talking about it in public and that includes the government as well. One un-nerving piece of information being talked about is that the crimes committed by these criminals have to be tried under the BDR Act where the punishment is too benign, given the gravity of the crimes committed and the way it has affected the psyche of the nation. The Government has hinted that if need be, laws will be enacted to mete out the harshest punishments, a move that could run into conflict on the principle of retroactivity.

There is, however, no reason for confusion. The February 25th incident is clearly a crime against humanity that is in no way different from the genocide of 1971. There is also no reason to resort to the BDR Act and allow these criminals a chance of reprieve. Nor is there any reason to enact new laws. In July 1973, the Government of Bangladesh enacted into law the International Crimes (Tribunal) Act that gives the present Government clear and unequivocal directions and guidelines to try the perpetrators of the February 25th carnage in Pilkhana by defining their crimes as crimes against humanity and not as mutiny or otherwise. Once this is done, the perpetrators can then be brought to stand trial through the setting up of a Tribunal and be punished in a manner deserving the seriousness of the crimes they have committed.

The Act also gives the government the laws required to bring under its purview the local perpetrators of the 1971 genocide and crimes against humanity. The provisions of the Act also allows, in case of the 1971 genocide, not to get entangled with war crimes issues that could raise questions about the rationale of trying the local collaborators while not trying those who masterminded the genocide in the first instance. Provision 2 (a) of the Act on “auxiliary forces” removes the confusion, if there is any, on whether BDR personnel can be tried outside the BDR Act. The same provision brings the Razakars and Al Badrs created in 1971 under the purview of the Act. In fact, the details of the Act give the Government all the legal cover to try 1971 and February 25th crimes without the need to create any new law and punish the perpetrators. It is also imperative that Bangladesh should use the 1973 Act to try these crimes against humanity successfully bearing in mind that in 1974 it was Bangladesh that had hosted the Third International Criminal Law Conference which was participated by the most distinguished jurists, legal experts and criminologists of the time. It was this conference that had inspired the signing of the ICC statute in Rome in 1998 that is such a significant milestone in bringing the perpetrators of crimes of genocide and crimes against humanity to justice. Many of the provisions of the 1973 Act have been incorporated in the ICC Statute.

There are two issues that are crucial to the explication of the February 25th massacre. First, the Government must, through the due process of investigation, prove to the nation that the PM's decision saved the civilian population from harm, and that those dead were killed in the initial hours of the massacre. It cannot push this crucial matter under the table; it would be totally unfair to the families of the martyrs and their comrades. Second, it must deal with the military whose anger is understood but the manner in which it has been demonstrated clearly brings into focus issues that are crucial to democracy and democratic way of governance. The civil-military issue has unfortunately assumed a major significance that must be settled positively by punishing the perpetrators of the February 25th carnage under the law in a transparent manner, above politics, so that it is just not resolved in the context of civil-military relations but that it sets deterrence so that such crimes are not committed in future.

Analysis of events such as 1971 and February 25th by hindsight can be utterly subjective and lead to wrong conclusions. At this stage, the inquiry on the massacre should be conducted fairly and transparently. Pending this, the gGovernment has to take a dispassionate look at events. Mistakes were made that are apparent even to the most subjective observer. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister could have acted only in the manner that she has acted, that is going for a peaceful solution. But then, there are politicians with military background in her party whose advice she could have taken.

As the events unfolded that day, many inexperienced politicians were seen running between Pilkhana and the PM's residence. Be that as it may, it is in the aftermath of the massacre that she needs to show the nation her statesmanship. She must seek the cooperation of all, including the opposition, to lead the future course of action after the inquiry commissions submit their reports. The media's role in their “breaking stories” that created favourable opinion for the criminals at the expense of the martyrs must also be brought to focus, particularly because these reports distorted the fact that those who died were among the best in the armed forces whose professionalism and integrity have changed the BDR into an institution in which the nation can take pride.

The February 25th carnage has ravaged the nation's soul in the same manner as it had in 1971. At this stage, the nation must stand behind the Prime Ministe, for the country's very existence is integrally linked to whether she succeeds or fails. The Prime Minister, on her part, must bear in mind that she is leading the entire nation.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Manpower Maelstrom

Published in The Daily Star, March 23, 2009

THE Malaysian government's decision to revoke 55,000 Bangladeshi work visas has shocked everyone. This shows the lack of preparedness of this government for dealing with situations out of the ordinary.

On the BBC website, one can see related backdated stories that should have alerted this government that a crisis was coming. A January 9 story was captioned "Malaysian Visa Policy Tightened," and another on January 22 said "Malaysia bans foreign recruitment."

The government should have focused on Malaysia in view of the remittance earnings, instead it recalled the high commissioner. The recall was publicized by the government, and was reported in the Malaysian media in a manner that went against our country's interests.

The High Commission was thus left to a junior officer while the crisis regarding Bangladesh expatriates was going from bad to worse. The acting high commissioner could not control the labour attaché, who deemed it fit to reveal that 70,000 Bangladeshis had received visas.

He told the media that Malaysia's bleak economic situation notwithstanding, these 70,000 Bangladeshis would be able to come to Malaysia. His comments sparked protests led by the Malaysian Trade Union Congress that resulted in the decision to revoke the visas. A Daily Star editorial has been appropriately critical of the foreign and the expatriate affairs ministers at their offer to go to Malaysia "if required" to deal with the ensuing situation.

The Malaysian crisis has brought to the surface serious issues about the remittance business. One, it has re-emphasised the importance of the remittance business to the national economy. There is also a discrepancy here between what appears in the media and the situation in reality. The Malaysian decision is grave news, but it will not, as the media has predicted, be a death blow to the remittance business because those whose visas have been revoked have not yet gone to Malaysia and, hence, have not started sending money home.

Bangladesh expatriates are patted on their backs in appreciation for the money they send home. The government, however, does precious little more for them to make their stay abroad comfortable or to remit their money without worry.

Private banks bring the remittance home through banks and exchange houses abroad. In this process, the Ministry of Expatriate Affairs and the Foreign Ministry, which can play significant roles in streamlining the business, are out of the loop. Also left out are the Bangladesh missions abroad.

The expatriate ministry sends the labour attaches to the missions without any coordination with the foreign ministry, and without any policy guidelines. The Malaysian case has clearly demonstrated the folly of sending labour attaches, who have no knowledge of diplomacy and find themselves out of the depths when facing challenging diplomatic tasks in a foreign environment.

Bangladesh can no longer leave external relations to be shared by a number of ministries that have no coordinating mechanism. It is also imperative for the success of the country's economic diplomacy to place all who work in missions abroad, except defence personnel, under the foreign ministry.

Despite the current world economic meltdown, the remittance business is set to grow. While a few existing markets could slow down, like Malaysia, there are newer areas opening. In a recent talk show, the president of BAIRA spoke of East Europe as a new market since East Europeans are migrating to West Europe.

One Bangladeshi manpower agent has sent a few hundred workers to Romania to work in that country's garment sector. Libya is getting back in the market. In 2005, Bangladesh and Japan signed an accord -- Japan International Training Cooperation Agreement (JITCO) -- under which Bangladesh is entitled to send an unlimited number of trainees and apprentices to sixty of Japan's small and medium scale enterprises. But it has not seen the light of day due to the failure of the expatriate ministry to understand its potential.

Under this agreement Bangladeshi workers can work in Japan for three years, during which they could each earn at least 3 to 6 times what Bangladeshi workers get in the ME, and return home with world class training and experience. An agreement with South Korea, modeled after JITCO, has not yet been exploited fully.

There is also scope for sending Bangladeshi women as maids to West Europe, which is not possible yet because of lack of trained maids. Untrained Bangladeshi maids are nevertheless being sent abroad illegally. Six such Bangladeshi women died in Lebanon recently because they went without any training or legal documents, and fell prey to circumstances.

These prospects will remain prospects unless Bangladesh urgently introduces a mechanism for coordination among the ministries/institutions involved in the remittance business, something sadly and badly lacking now. As a consequence, Bangladeshi workers earn far less compared to workers from other countries.

The failure to bring embassies into the loop by strengthening them and empowering the ambassadors has not allowed Bangladesh achieve better deal for the workers as well as providing better consular services to them. Finally, training has been given little importance, as a consequence of which Bangladeshi workers can become helpless.

Manpower markets are expanding. At present, more than half of the money earned by Bangladeshi expatriates is being lost to the hundi system. Thus, the potential of remittance is vast, but to cash in on this we need to get our house in order.

Bangladesh receives less than $2 billion in aid and grant from the developed nations. She retains the External Resources Division where civil servants feel proud to serve. Yet ministries that can help bring many more billions of dollars, like the foreign and the expatriate ministries, are treated unfairly and not allowed to work to their fullest potential. For the nation's sake, it is necessary to change our mindset. The Malaysian decision should help Bangladesh do that.